Primary tabs

196

A Protest Against Police Brutality.

(Note. — Early in November, 1891, the police of Chicago made two raids — one at Turner Hall on a Wednesday night, and the other at Greif's Hall on the next night, under the circumstances set out below.)

Chicago, November 14, 1891.

Maj. R. W. McClaughry,
Chief of Police of Chicago:

Dear Sir: I trust that you will pardon me for entering a protest against the arbitrary, high-handed and illegal acts of some of your police inspectors during this week. They have been guilty of conduct which is subversive of the fundamental principles of our government, and which must tend to bring the fair fame of our great city into disrepute, and if persisted in, or repeated often, must foster a spirit of revenge and hatred, and ultimately result in bloodshed, if not anarchy. I write this protest to you because until recently you have shown a determination to put a stop to arbitrary, brutal and lawless acts of men wearing the uniform of a policeman and drawing a salary from the public treasury. Nobody has a higher regard for the great body of the police force of Chicago than I have. I know that there are hundreds and hundreds of honest, conscientious and faithful officers on the force, who do their duty quietly, without any effort at dramatic effect, and who do not find it necessary to violate the law in order to do their duty. They are gentlemen — just the kind of men that the law contemplated its guardians should be — protectors of the weak and poor and of good order. For these men I have the highest praise. It is asserted by some that this class of men have in the past been kept in the background because they did not possess political influence, and that there had been promoted to the higher positions a class of men many of whom were brutal by instinct, lacked common honesty, and, frequently, were simply bullies in uniform, some of them levying blackmail upon unfortunate women, and when the blackmail was not paid, raiding them and dragging them into the police station, while others did not hesitate to violate the law in different ways. You have already weeded a number of this class of men out of the force, and the good people of Chicago, without reference to party, all unite in commending your action. Now, among the class last described, there were some men who, for several years, have managed to get a little notoriety, and sometimes newspaper applause, by periodically making a discovery of anarchists. Nothing came of these discoveries, but they seemed to be renewed as often as it was

197

necessary for some detective, who never won any laurels in detecting crime and who thirsted for notoriety, to attract some attention. Several of these men have been dropped from the force for the good of the city, but it seems there are others anxious to emulate them. On Wednesday night last there was, at Twelfth Street Turner Hall, a meeting of people who, so far as anything to the contrary has appeared, were working people holding a meeting at which there was no breach of peace and no call for police interference of any kind. Yet at this meeting Police Inspector Hubbard forcibly entered with a squad of officers, and in a dramatic manner stopped the proceeding of the meeting, ordered those assembled to go and get an American flag, declaring that unless they did so he, the inspector, would adjourn the meeting, indulging in other threats, terrorizing those assembled so far as he could, and practically breaking up the meeting. Having covered himself in this way with glory, the brave inspector, who had once been chief of police of the city, and had failed to win laurels in the detection and punishment of real criminals, took his squad of men and retreated. The newspapers report you as commending his action. As a friend, and as a man who has admired your course here, and who has the highest personal regard for you, I hope you are not correctly reported. It there was any violation of the law at the meeting on Wednesday night, if any crime was committed there, then you certainly will admit that it was the duty of the officers there to have arrested those guilty of the crime; to have seen that complaint was properly lodged against the offenders, and that they were punished according to the law. Any officer failing to do this would have been promptly disciplined. Yet nothing of this kind was done. Not a single man was arrested or prosecuted, although the inspector was hunting for anarchists and was looking for even a pretext to arbitrarily interfere. No crime having been committed, the act of the inspector in interfering with the meeting was an outrage — was a clear violation of law — for which he should have been promptly dismissed from the force. The law guarantees to every person liberty of speech, the protection of the person and the protection of property; one is no more sacred than the other. In fact, among all liberty-loving nations of Europe and America the right of free speech and "the right of immunity from personal molestation is regarded as being more sacred and of a higher order than the right of property. Yet, if some poor wretch steals an overcoat worth $30, we send him to the penitentiary. But when a so-called officer of the law, drawing pay from the city treasury, violates the right of free speech and the right of person; when an officer of the law commits a crime which is more serious

198

than the stealing of a thousand overcoats, he is applauded and is said to be commended by his chief, because the people whose rights he violated were poor wretches whom he could abuse at pleasure. Look at the case a moment: Where do you find a law authorizing a bully, whether in uniform or in rags, to break up a meeting of any kind, whether of preachers, of bankers or politicians, or even anarchists, because they do not have the American flag on the stage; or giving him the right to demand of them that they shall put it there, under a threat that he will adjourn the meeting if they do not? Let me say to you, that neither you nor your police force are the sole custodians of admiration for the American flag. No man holds it in higher regard than I do, and it is because I feel that the proceedings which I have described are an insult to the American flag, and must tend to foster a spirit of hatred toward it; it is because I feel that wrong never makes right, and as human nature is constituted it is impossible to inspire love by the application of brute force; and it is because I feel that if our flag ever ceases to be that emblem of freedom which has secured it the friendly greeting of all mankind, it will be due to just such proceedings as I have described, that I complain. But Inspector Hubbard, having thus dramatically and in a moment achieved a degree of glory which he had never been able to attain by the exercise of his legitimate powers and duties as a police officer, Inspector Lewis, of the adjoining district, resolved not to be outdone. If lording it over a few dozen wretches, who are described as smelling of beer, could win glory, he was determined to have his share and to out-do Hubbard. So on the following night, instead of a small detachment, he takes one hundred officers to Grief's building, where there was a meeting of laboring people, and where there had been no breach of the peace, and, so far as the evidence has yet shown, no crime committed of any kind or character; and finding that he could not get free access to the meeting he broke down the doors, not only to the hall, but to different private apartments, entered with his officers, and ordered the inmates in the hall and rooms to throw up their hands, proceeded to club all who did not do so, and then searched everyone present — about two hundred; and all who objected to this arbitrary and illegal process were pronounced disorderly, and were placed under arrest and marched to the station and locked up in cells. Twenty-three men were in this way dealt with. The whole proceeding had been without any warrant and without any evidence that a crime had been committed. During the search revolvers were found on the persons of four of them; although there were nearly two hundred present only four had pistols. You must have been surprised

199

not to find more, for the proceeding on the previous night was certainly calculated to make men get arms if they did not already have them yet there were not as many pistols found as could be found at a meeting of half that many people held anywhere else in the city. At the police station these men were put on trial for disorderly conduct and carrying concealed weapons. Think a moment, now, of this farce: Having gone so far as to break down doors and break up a peaceable meeting, and arrest these men and bring them to the station, the officers felt that they must swear to something, and having nothing else in the whole criminal code to charge, they fell back on the blanket charge of disorderly conduct; and in trying to name something which in their judgment constituted an offense, they swore before Justice Woodman that different men at the meeting had used abusive language, had spoken abusively of the government, and had called the mayor a fool and a dude, and had abused the police force. This is the substance of the evidence given. The charge that these men were anarchists not only fell to the ground but was entirely disproven. But suppose they had been anarchists. There was no law authorizing this ruffianly bullying, and certainly no course could have been pursued that was more calculated to confirm fanatical people in their error, and elevate them to the plane of martyrs, than that of your officers. Yet, and what is far more serious, no course could have been pursued that would so certainly make converts to the cause of anarchy among ignorant men, for a thousand loud-talking agitators could not sow as much anarchial seed in a year as your officers have done in a week. Now, look at this a moment: When a murder or a robbery, or any heinous crime, is committed, we find the machinery of the law ample for the case. There is a charge; the offender is arrested on a specific charge and is prosecuted and punished. There is no dramatic or spectacular performance found necessary in any of these cases — no violation of law by the officers is found necessary. But when some laboring men, described as being ragged and smelling of beer, get together in a room and simply use language which ordinarily is thought nothing of when coming from other men, a hundred officers are at once on hand, there is a spectacular display, doors are broken down and people subjected to outrage, and it is announced that the good fame of the city and the success of the Columbian Exposition is in danger. This blundering farce and criminal act on the part of the police will hurt the city's good name more than all the anarchists could have done in a century. Why, if a crime had been committed there, the offenders could have been brought to justice without subjecting two hundred people to outrage. You are reported

200

as saying that you did not believe that they (the people arrested) had contemplated any violent outbreak, and that it was only talk that they had intended to indulge in. Now, the law guarantees freedom of assemblage, freedom of speech and freedom from personal molestation, as well as the right of property. Having done this, the law then holds men responsible for what they do in exercising these rights, and if a crime is committed the law provides an orderly and a reasonable procedure for bringing the offenders to justice. Freedom of assemblage means undisturbed assemblage, free from the presence of all who are not wanted; and freedom of speech means the right to say anything the speaker sees fit to say, he remaining responsible for his utterance; and it is an axiom of the law, that mere talk, no matter how abusive, does not constitute a crime. The highest tribunals of the land have repeatedly decided that language alone, no matter how abusive, if unaccompanied by overt acts, can not constitute treason or any offense against the government. The statutes of Illinois define a criminal offense as follows: "A criminal offense consists in a violation of a public law, in the commission of which there shall be a union or joint operation of act and intention or criminal negligence." There must be some overt act, some deed. The law takes notice only of acts, of deeds, and not of talk. Mere talk can be considered only in so far as it tends to throw light upon or explain the motives for deeds, and no further.

Of course, loud or abusive talk on the streets where it would collect a crowd and disturb the peace, is governed by a different principle. But the meetings that were broken up this week were not held on the street, they were held on private premises; and it has not even been pretended that there was loud or abusive talking or a breach of the peace at either of them, until your officials provoked it. So that, according to the evidence of your own officers, there had been nothing done at either of the meetings that the law took any notice of — nothing that could be construed into a violation of law; while the overwhelming weight of the evidence shows that the meeting at Greif's hall was simply an assemblage of small labor organizations that were holding a regular meeting, and were simply transacting routine business in a quiet and orderly way. No doubt there were some there who felt exasperated at the bullying to which they had been subjected the night before at Turner hall, and no doubt most if not all present were indignant and resentful at the outrage of having their meeting forcibly broken into and being ordered to hold up their hands, and then being compelled to submit to having their persons searched and be jostled around and clubbed by ruffians in uniform. Do you think

201

it strange that they should use abusive language under these circumstances? Would any man be worthy of American citizenship if he could supinely bear this? What would you have said — yea, and have done, if subjected to a like outrage? Supposing the proceedings to have been legal, do you consider this the right way to inspire love for our flag, or respect for our institutions? But they were not only illegal but un-American; they are tolerated only in Russia, and are failing in their purpose there. The American people are not prepared to substitute government by police ruffians for government by law, and we cannot for one moment admit the principle that a policeman or any other officer, be he president or constable, can, without trial and without legal process, deprive men of their rights on the pretext that if he did not do so they might commit an offense. We can not for a moment admit that by simply applying an unpopular or obloquious name to men, whether that name be anarchist or socialist, capitalist or vagabond, republican or democrat, an officer can be justified in depriving men of rights guaranteed by the fundamental law, and can break up their meeting, can club, search and imprison them, not for what they have done, but for what he, in his wisdom, or his prejudice, or his caprice, fears they might do. If this principle were once admitted, there is no limit to its application. While it is sought to apply it to one class to-day, it could be applied to any other class to-morrow, and a precedent made in one case would be sure to be cited and acted on in another, and a political party, for the time being in power, could prevent its opponents from meeting and put them in jail, not for what they had done, but for what it was feared they might do. During the last city campaign there were meetings of men who denounced Mayor Cregier and his administration, using terms a great deal more offensive than that of being a fool or a dude. Suppose Mayor Cregier had attempted to send a police inspector with a hundred men to each of these meetings, and the inspector had attempted to dictate to the meeting just how far they could go in their abusive language without his declaring the meeting adjourned, would the proceeding have been tolerated for one moment?

I do not know any of the men who were at those meetings on Wednesday and Thursday nights, or who were clubbed and arrested; never saw any of them, never spoke to any of them; nobody ever spoke to me concerning any of them, and I have no interest in them. But I will ask you, can you think of anything more calculated to create a thirst for revenge in the minds of ignorant men; can you think of anything more calculated to plant the seeds of hatred and even of murder in the hearts of men; can you think of anything more

202

calculated to make them hate the flag that floats above them and pray for the destruction of the government that thus bullies them than the conduct of your police officers during the past week? If that conduct does not inspire the feelings I have just named, will you kindly tell me what kind of conduct will do so? In the spring of 1886 we had some extensive strikes and labor troubles on the West Side At that time there were meetings of labor people, and the Police Department then pursued the course which your officers have just been pursuing; when there was no trouble meetings were broken up, men were clubbed to the right and to the left without any provocation, and this was kept up for weeks, until finally some wretch, whose name, if they knew it, the police have never been willing to make public, threw a bomb at a squad of police who were in the act of dispersing another peaceable meeting — a meeting which the Mayor had attended and pronounced peaceable — and the result was the killing and maiming of a large number of policemen, most of them officers who were simply obeying the orders of their superiors, and were not responsible for the brutal bullying done by other officers. If the course which your force has started in to pursue shall long continue, can you, in all reason, expect any other result to follow than bloodshed? Even a worm will sometimes turn and sting the heel that tramps on it.

You are reported as having said you will continue to break up meetings which do not meet with your approval, designating in this class meetings in which the speakers use abusive language and denounce the government. Now let me ask you again, since when has it been the law that a policeman can attend a meeting of citizens and prescribe what may and what may not be said at that meeting? As a citizen and a tax-payer, as a man who loves our country and believes our government to be the best on earth; as a lover of liberty, of law and of order; as a man who is proud of our great city and who does not want its fair fame clouded by this dramatic and farcical police demonstration, I protest against these unlawful acts, and I will say to you that it will be an evil day for our country when the poor and the ignorant, misguided though they may be, shall feel that a bullet is the only minister of justice which can right their wrongs, and the conduct of your officers now, like the conduct of certain officers in the spring of 86, will certainly tend to create that feeling and to accelerate its growth, and thus tend to endanger the lives and property of our people.

Very respectfully,
JOHN P. ALTGELD

Note. — The cases were tried before Police Magistrate Woodman, who held his position as such magistrate from Mayor Washburn. Everybody expected

203

Woodman to do whatever the city administration wanted done in the cases. After the writing of the above letter Mr. Greif's daughter, who was lying dangerously ill in her father's house at the time Inspector Lewis battered down the doors died. Her death being hastened if not actually caused by the shock. In the meantime public sentiment began to be aroused, and the police, as well as the administration, were censured, until the latter felt that it must have some sort of vindication. Then was enacted one of the most farcical proceedings, following on the heels of a tragedy, ever witnessed in this country. Magistrate Woodman rendered his decision and proceeded to find all of the men guilty of disorderly conduct. The moment he had concluded and before the defendants had time to stand up and pray an appeal, Mr. Douglas, the city prosecutor, who had spent nearly a week prosecuting the cases, jumped up and asked that the fines be suspended in all the cases, and the magistrate very complacently suspended all the fines, against the protests of the defendants, who insisted on their right of appeal, claiming that a principle was involved, and they did not want the matter dropped in that farcical way, but wanted their rights vindicated in a higher tribunal. The city prosecutor simply replied that as the fines had been suspended there was nothing to appeal from. Now, sentence is sometimes suspended on motion of the defendants when it appears that there were mitigating circumstances and there is a promise of better conduct for the future. But the idea of arresting men, clubbing them, locking them up, spending a week in prosecuting them, and then, against their protest, suspending the fines and telling them to go home when they insisted on carrying the litigation farther, has never been heard of before. Of all the travesties that were ever enacted in so-called courts of justice, none ever had so comical an ending. It showed that the city authorities felt they were in the wrong, but had not the manliness to confess it, and they resorted to this boy's play, hoping to get out of a bad scrape.

Subsequently, at the request of the city authorities, there were conferences held between the mayor and chief of police on the one hand, and some of the men who were arrested at Greif's Hall and their friends, on the other, in which conferences both the mayor and the chief tried to appease the men by promising reparation for the wrong done, the chief saying that he would pay for the property belonging to some of the societies, and which had been destroyed by the police.

Share